Musician and bandleader. Born James Francis Dorsey, on February 29, 1904, in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. His father, Thomas Francis Dorsey, was a coal miner who later became a music teacher and led a brass band; all three of his children studied music with him. When they were only teenagers, Dorsey and his younger brother, Tommy, formed their first band, Dorseys’ Novelty Six, later known as Dorseys’ Wild Canaries. During the 1920s, both brothers worked in various bands and as freelance and studio musicians, mostly in New York City. While both brothers had begun on the cornet, Jimmy became known for his playing of the clarinet and alto saxophone, while Tommy played the trombone and trumpet. The Dorsey brothers played with all the big names in big band and swing music, including the California Ramblers, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Vincent Lopez, Joe Venuti, and Ted Lewis; they also recorded as accompanying musicians with Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, and Ruth Etting, among others.
In 1927, the Dorsey brothers began to record under their own label, “The Dorsey Brothers and Their Concert Orchestra.” The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra did not make its formal debut, however, until 1934, when it began a long residency at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. With its sweet-toned instrumental style, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra combined a big band orchestral sound with the popular appeal of dance music, and quickly emerged as one of the most innovative bands of the developing Swing Era. In 1935, persistent sibling rivalry led the Dorsey brothers to split; Jimmy remained with the band, and Tommy, wanting to strike out on his own, formed a new band. Before long, the two Dorsey brothers’ orchestras—similar on the surface but each with its own distinct musical style—were two of the most popular bands in America. Tommy’s records eventually outsold Jimmy’s, especially by the time the swing craze reached its height, in 1938, and Tommy Dorsey was promoted as “That Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.” Tommy’s popularity only increased when, in 1940, he hired the rising young singer, Frank Sinatra.
Of the two brothers, Jimmy Dorsey was a far more gentle, easygoing bandleader. The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra played for motion picture soundtracks and on radio broadcasts, most notably Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall. With two extremely popular singers, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, the band scored such hit singles as 1940’s “Contrasts,” as well as “Amapola,” “Tangerine,” “Green Eyes,” and “Maria Elena,” all recorded in 1941. In 1938, Dorsey was included in Ripley’s Believe It or Not after he played “Flight of the Bumblebee” in two breaths—he later played the tune in only one breath on the CBS television program Swing Session.
The demise of the big bands in the 1940s, spurred by the focus on vocal performers, led the careers of both Dorsey brothers to decline. Both men disbanded but later reformed their orchestras, and they worked together briefly on the 1947 film, The Fabulous Dorseys. In 1953, the two musicians were reunited in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey. They gained a good deal of notice for their regular appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show, witnessing the beginning of a new musical era when they introduced the young Elvis Presley. From 1955 to 1956, the Dorsey brothers co-hosted their own television program, Stage Show, on CBS.
When Tommy died suddenly and unexpectedly in November 1956, Jimmy took over the band, recording a new version of one of his much earlier songs, “So Rare,” that went to the top of the charts and gave Dorsey the biggest hit of his career. He died on June 12, 1957, less than a year after his brother.
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